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Swift Analysis: The (Almost) Definitive Guide to the Subjects of All 19 ‘Red’ Songs

October 23, 2012 9:15 AM ET
Swift Analysis: The (Almost) Definitive Guide to the Subjects of All 19 ‘Red’ Songs

Reading through the lyric booklet of Taylor Swift's Red, you may be surprised to come across the secret message that reads:

P-A-U-L-I-S D-E-A-D.

Just kidding. But not since the late '60s, when worried Beatlemaniacs scanned every microscopic bit of every album looking for confirmation that Paul McCartney had died, have so many fans spent as much time analyzing cryptic C-L-U-E-S as they are this week, now that Red is out and peppered with hints about the subjects of Swift's songs.

As you may know, on every album, Swift indulges in inappropriate capitalizations in the printed lyrics of her songs, and it's not because she spilled a Coke on the shift key of her old IBM Selectric. When you put together those capitalized letters, they spell out messages about the meanings or origins of the tune in question. Which made for decoder-ring-style fun from the get-go, but which is particularly provocative now that there's a national guessing game about which well-known boyfriend each number might be about.

It's as if Swift's giving us tacit permission to guess away. You could say she gets to have it both ways: refusing to talk about the specific subjects of most of her songs, but also teasing fans with clues that range from utterly opaque to dead give-away spoilers. Isn't she simultaneously discouraging and encouraging this kind of voyeuristic speculation? Maybe, but she's said in interviews that she doesn't mind people guessing who the tunes are about if that means they're focused in on lyrics. And if you're a music buff, you can only applaud her for prompting a new generation of pop fans to indulge in the nearly lost practice of staring at a lyric sheet for hours.

Naturally, we want to play Nancy Drew and join in the fun. Two years ago, we did a song-by-song analysis on Speak Now, and Swift told us how much she enjoyed reading our piece on "what you think my songs were about." Think was the operative word there, and should have been a tip-off that we got at least one dead-wrong. Which we did: Because we hadn't seen the hidden messages before writing that piece, we mistakenly pegged "Story of Us" as being about Joe Jonas instead of its true subject, John Mayer. Silly us! This time, we waited till all the clues were in hand before venturing any guesses.

Here is our possibly fallible take on all 19 songs – 16 on the regular edition, and three more on the deluxe:

1. "State of Grace"

Clue: "I love you doesn't count after goodbye"

All we really learn from the hidden message is that this boyfriend probably dumped her, then had second thoughts and came back for another shot, which Swift wasn't giving. But the lyrics hold better clues: "Just twin fire signs, four blue eyes." Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal are both blue-eyed Sagitariuses.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 99%

2. "Red"

Clue: "Sag" (or is it "SAG"?)

The hidden message could mean any of three things: short for Sagitarius (see above), short for Sag Harbor (the kind of place a New Yorker and his date might go take a spin around), or the well-known acronym for the Screen Actors Guild. Alternately, maybe she just means this intense love affair... sagged. Any one of those four interpretations points in one direction.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 90%

3. "Treacherous"

Clue: "Won't stop till it's over"

Well, that's one not much help... as far as we can tell. Some fans have speculated this is about One Direction's Harry Styles because he has a tattoo that says "Won't stop till we surrender." That's... interesting, if hardly definitive. But in lieu of other evidence, we'll buy it, for now, especially since the song seems to be about a mostly sensual – and uneasy – connection, as opposed to other songs on the album that make it clear she was really comfortable and in love with Gyllenhaal.

Best bet: Styles

Our confidence level: 55%

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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